Control of the Internet

The InternetIf you follow presidential politics you may have heard a few candidates claim that the US government is giving away control of the Internet. This one puzzled me, and it turns out what they are talking about the transition of the control of the DNS function from US control to a non-profit international body. It turns out that this is something that has been in the works for decades.

The issue involves DNS, or the Domain Name System. This is the system that matches the name of a web site with an IP address. This system allows you to go to the amazon.com website by typing the name address “amazon.com” into your browser instead of having to know the numerical IP address for Amazon.

DNS is essential to ISPs because it tells them how to route a given request on the web. There is one master file of all worldwide web names and the associated IP addresses. And obviously somebody has to be in charge of that directory to add, delete and make changes to web names and IP addresses.

After the early days of the Internet this function went to a group called IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. This group was largely managed by a few staffers, academics, and help from some of the early web companies – all techies who only wanted to make sure that the burgeoning web worked well. And although they didn’t exert any control, the group was loosely under the auspices of the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), a part of the Department of Commerce which had veto power over anything done by IANA.

This power was rarely exercised, but there were many around the world that were uncomfortable with the US Government being in charge of a vital web function. There was a push for an international group to take over the DNS function and in 1998 the function was transferred to ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN brought in Board members from around the world and the group has effectively since then been operated with international consensus. But the NTIA still maintained a veto power over things done by the group.

But since it was founded there has been a planned transition to a fully international ICANN with no ties to the US government and on October 1 control of ICANN changed hands and is now operated only by an international Board without oversight from the US government.

Just a few weeks before the planned transfer four states sued to stop the transfer in the US District Court in Texas. Their argument was that the directory of IP names and addresses belonged to the US and could not be given away without approval from Congress.

The opponents to this suit argued that not turning over the control of ICANN was a much bigger threat because it might lead to other countries developing their own DNS databases – and the ability of anybody in the world to reach any web address using the same nomenclature is vital to the concept of an open and free Internet. Interestingly, it was this same concept a century ago – that anybody with a telephone ought to be able to call any other telephone number in the world – that was a driving principle in creating an efficient worldwide telephone network.

The suit was processed quickly and the judge came down on the side of the open Internet and the transition to ICANN. In the end this fight was more about politics than anything substantial. At the end of the day the DNS database is nothing more than the equivalent of a gigantic white pages listing of every address on the Internet. All that really matters is that this database be kept up to date and be available to the whole world. ICANN has had the same international board of techies since 1998 and this transition was planned for a long time. So there is no threat to the US losing control of the Internet folks that saw the headlines can sleep well knowing that this issue was about politics and not about a real threat.

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